Public Release: 

Obesity Bigger Turnoff Than Eating Disorder

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Men and women seem to have an equal tendency to avoid dating people with eating disorders. But when it comes to obesity, men are far less accepting than women, says a new Cornell University study.

"Students -- and probably others -- generally stigmatize people with eating disorders, and, as a result, many are reluctant to become involved in romantic relationships with a person who has anorexia nervosa or bulimia," says Jeffery Sobal, a nutritional sociologist and associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell, who conducted the study of college men and women.

Men, however, do not stigmatize women with eating disorders as severely as they do obese women. Women, on the other hand, do not stigmatize men with eating disorders any more or less than they do men who are obese, he adds.

Specifically, 53 percent of the men and 59 percent of the women in the study say they wouldn't want to date a person with an eating disorder. Yet, 74 percent of men and 60 percent of women report they are uncomfortable dating someone who is obese.

"This suggests that rejection of obese individuals remains a powerful value in contemporary society, especially the male rejection of obese women that undergirds the society emphasis on slimness for women and contributes to eating disorders," write Sobal and his co-author, Mark Bursztyn, in the most recent issue of Women and Health (Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 71-87, 1998). Bursztyn (Cornell '97), who is a medical student at the SUNY Sciences Center at Brooklyn College of Medicine, worked on the project as an undergraduate student at Cornell.

Sobal and Bursztyn analyzed written questionnaires from 752 university students to assess dating attitudes, beliefs and experiences related to anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Overall, the students said they believed that people with eating disorders had a difficult time dating, that conflict would exist in such dates, and that dating a person with an eating disorder would be a negative experience.

Indeed, says Sobal, marriages in which one partner has an eating disorder have more communication problems and less intimacy than other marriages.

In a previous study published in 1995, Sobal and two former Cornell undergraduate students looked at the attitudes of 786 11th- and 12th-graders toward dating an obese person. In a paper published in the International Journal of Obesity (Vol. 19, pp. 376-381, 1995), the authors found that 86 percent of the young men and 78 percent of the young women said they would not want to regularly date a very overweight person.

Anorexia nervosa is a psychological condition in which a person avoids food and eats very little out of an irrational fear of becoming or being fat. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating often followed by self-induced vomiting. Men make up about 1 million of the 8 million Americans with eating disorders, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Although relatively rare, eating disorders are becoming more common, largely due, says Sobal, to our culture's frequent portrayal of the ideal body.

"Men are being judged on their thinness much more than they used to be. Some of this results from the media which hold up as cultural ideals males with genetically rare body shapes and virtually no body fat. Just like girls, boys as young as 9 and 10 are being affected by this," Sobal says.

Both the 1998 and the 1995 studies were funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.


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